Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia portray morally conflicted characters plagued with feelings of doubt and self-disgust over their inability to resolve for themselves the ambiguities endemic to a world seemingly bereft of a moral center. Both are caught up in the violent cycle of revenge and the torments of conscience. Hamlet’s moral dilemma leaves him irresolute and impotent, while Lawrence’s impulsiveness leaves him vulnerable to the psychological costs of his own past and the part he played in the duplicitous, imperialistic political power-play that underlay the war in the Middle East.
Keywords: Hamlet, Lawrence of Arabia, revenge, conscience, Middle East
Conscience and Moral Ambiguity: Ethical Irresolution in ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’
Few film characters in the post-World-War-II era exhibit the existential angst and complex personal insecurity of Hamlet as closely as T.E. Lawrence, particularly as he was portrayed in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Director David Lean characterized Lawrence as “a modern Hamlet, the hero compelled to act but dogged by self-distrust and self-disgust” (Roselli, 1955, 49). Like Hamlet, Lawrence is caught up in a situation that causes him to question his own self worth and which emphasizes the moral aimlessness of life itself. Both are beset by feelings of remorse and uncertainty, producing in Hamlet a vacuity that manifests itself in inaction, a kind of moral impotency. Lawrence’s impulsiveness is a product of his self-doubt, which leads to the self-loathing that takes such a terrible psychological and physical toll on him. It is a fascinating literary irony that the moral flaws and terrible emotional scars borne by Hamlet and Lawrence have produced such interesting character studies.
Conscience is the common theme between the key characters in Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia. It is conscience that stifles Hamlet’s resolve, just as it haunts Lawrence, whose actions reflect a moral ambivalence common to the political shadow game that played out in the Middle East during World War I. After the war, it was conscience that tormented Lawrence for his duplicity in helping the British use the Arabs as their political pawns in the Middle East. As conscience drives Hamlet to indulge in self-revulsion and bemoan his moral weakness, Lawrence disgustedly seeks to separate himself from the generals and politicians who have conspired to place him in an untenable position. As such, Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia present us with morality plays that assert the power of conscience.
Conscience sheds light on masochistic tendencies in both Hamlet and Lawrence, whose moral dilemmas cause them to act out their self-loathing in distinctive ways. In one scene, Hamlet refers to himself as “pidgeon-livered,” while declaring in another, “Oh what a rogue and peasant-slave am I?..” (Shakespeare, II, ii). Hamlet possesses a strong Christian moral grounding and it is the conflict between Christian teachings and the desire for revenge that elicits these exclamations of frustration over his inability to resolve a terrible ethical dilemma. This would have been a familiar problem to Elizabethans, who were awash in devotional literature that debated the spiritual ramifications of the conflicts that confound Hamlet. Thus, “in an age preoccupied with religious controversy, Christian truthseemed both simple and complex in that it focused upon the nature of God and his unpredictable ways toward man, and upon man’s precarious ethical role in the universe God created” (King, 2).
Lawrence, like Hamlet, is plagued by unexorcised ghosts. We learn early in the film that Lawrence was born out of wedlock, an ineradicable social stain in Victorian society. The shame of his personal circumstances are only part of his psychological make-up, but it exacerbates the overpowering guilt he feels over the blood shed in his name and for his part in a cause that was been cynically manufactured by British politicians behind the scenes. The pressure within him manifests itself in perverse ways: Lawrence deliberately exposes himself to capture and torture in Dera’a. After enduring a degrading sexual assault by a Turkish bey, Lawrence decides that he is unworthy of the success and adulation he has earned and abruptly abandons the Arab cause. And yet his flawed persona, which craves love and attention, allows him to be manipulated into returning by General Allenby.
Hamlet and Lawrence both struggle within the confines of a world in which the ends justify the means, in which ethical behavior appears to have no lasting effect or proffer any personal rewards for just action. This contradicts Hamlet’s Christian grounding and abets his “growing inability to cope with his own confused involvement with the issues he himself raises (producing) a harrowing suspicion that human existence may have no moral or metaphysical meaning at all” (King, 10). If there is no meaning, then there can be no answer to the questions that arise from Hamlet’s doubts, and if that is the case then the world itself is a truly terrifying place, not because of ghosts or the omnipresence of corruption and violence but because of its moral aimlessness. In a godless universe, revenge is endemic. The belief among Elizabethan audiences was that to take the law into one’s own hands was sinful. Nevertheless, the contemplation of revenge provided a compelling literary counterpoint to the conviction that the world should function according to the orderly precepts of Providence.
This same conviction is a foundational belief of modern society. Revenge, which, by definition, takes place beyond the pale of the law, arises from chaos and creates chaos. In an orderly society, this is unacceptable. Yet revenge remains as fascinating to modern man as it was in Elizabethan times. One need only consider the popularity of films in which revenge is a central theme; films such as The Godfather and its sequels, for example, allow people to live vicariously through characters for whom revenge and the exercise of power are central to the pursuit of success and prosperity - in other words, to the fulfillment of the American Dream. In his 1919 essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T.S. Eliot writes that Hamlet is a play that deals with “a mother’s guilt upon her son” (Eliot, 57). To be sure, guilt is a central theme in Hamlet, and it is perhaps guilt, or the assuagement of guilt, that has made revenge so fascinating to audiences both in Shakespeare’s time and in the present. It is through the medium of literature that the individual can become an avenger without feeling the guilt that descended upon Hamlet.
Conscience is the mitigating factor in this equation. Conscience reminds the individual that revenge, though satisfying, is at base an empty gesture. It is, in fact, the very reason for the imposition of justice, the pursuit of which is meant to keep citizens safe from the “chaos” of revenge. When an individual pursues selfish goals, such as revenge, at the expense of society the fragile cohesiveness that keeps civilization from flying apart becomes frayed and vulnerable. The psychological/philosophical doubt that plagues Hamlet is the guilt that is visited on the revenge-seeker, on the individual whose spiritual and philosophical grounding speaks out against revenge and creates an ethical dichotomy within the heart and mind.
Hamlet and Lawrence struggle within themselves against the pull of a violent and dangerous world that often seems cut loose from all moral and spiritual restraint. Revenge and the temptation to indulge in the single-minded commission of violence pull at the consciences of Hamlet and Lawrence. The dictates of conscience and the demands of an ostensibly just society provide the backdrop against which both characters wrestle with uncertainty and the bloody “ghosts” of their respective pasts. Ultimately, it is conscience that determines the verdict in both cases. The presence of guilt and the inability of both characters to overcome the strain it places on their consciences render a kind of justice in both instances. Both are ensnared by the moral ambiguity that they are unable to resolve within themselves.
Eliot, T.S. (1957). The Sacred Wood and Early Major Essays. Mineola, NY: Dover
Shakespeare, W. (2007). Hamlet. London, UK: Thomson Learning.
King, Walter N. (2011). Hamlet’s Search for Meaning. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press.
Rosselli, J. “Was T.E. Lawrence a Fake?” The Reporter, 21 April 1955.